Review: THE TRIAL OF DENNIS THE MENACE – Southbank Centre


Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London

Being a fan of Dennis the Menace and all his Beano chums for almost 30 years, I jumped at the chance to see this original production. I even put up with the hordes of excited children as I took my place in the queue. As soon as the door opened, though, I was crushed. Not by 7 year olds, but by the set which, although cartoon-like, somehow manages to entirely avoid the simplicity of the Beano comic strips.

Unfortunately, and I cannot stress enough the level of frustration I feel about it, this was not the only disappointment of the evening. However, there are a few bright shining rays of hope too, so I will try to balance it out.

As I mentioned, Liz Cooke’s set design does not feel at all Beano-esque although, as a theatre set, it is simple and effective for its purpose; I just expected more from it. Cooke does, however, redeem herself through her excellent costume design, which matches entirely the image I have in my head of each character. The lighting design, by Mark Jonathan, is excellent but was badly let down in places by the operator during the performance I attended.

The production is clearly written by an adult and has a rather a ‘grown-up’ feel to it in places. Having said that, the piece is written well; just for the wrong audience. The poetry and musical numbers again, although incredibly well written, contain too many grown-up references and, whilst displaying Caroline Bird’s extraordinary talents as a poet and writer, mark her as one who should maybe concentrate on shows for adults.

Beano, as a comic strip, is fast-paced and carries more laughs per minute than this sometimes slow production. However, there are a few laughs in this, with the children, who accounted for around 50% of our audience, squealing in delight at what I found to be some of the more tedious moments of overacting.

Acting-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. With a cast of just four actors performing 20 characters, it is to be expected that some characters are more believable than others. Unfortunately, the two male actors – Alex Lowe and Miltos Yerolemou – are clearly and visibly older than some of the younger characters they portray, which I noticed quite strongly in places.

Gnasher (puppetry by Yerolemou who also plays Dennis the Menace, Cuthbert, Guard and Roger’s Dad) was unconvincing, missing out many of Gnasher’s trademark “G” sounds – a point more attributable to the script and direction (by Rebecca Gatward) than to the actor. Yerolemou performs Dennis particularly well, bringing out many of his characteristics right down to his cheeky but likeable facial expressions.

Lowe is excellent at a variety of voices, playing his seven very different characters with apparent ease. Unfortunately, his voice, when performing as the Mayor and the Policeman, is a little unclear and, even sitting in the second row, I missed several words. Lowe also plays the roles of Roger the Dodger, Billy Whizz, Walter, Smiffy and Therapist, the latter being his best performance.

Heather Dutton excels as Minnie the Minx, which is definitely her best role out of the four she plays, closely followed by her portrayal of Empathy Moon (the other two characters being Judge and Teacher).

Dana Gartland, as Cynthia, Lawyer, Danny, Miss Swivelchair and Walter’s Mum, plays each of her roles well.

Walter is much less wimpy in this production than in the Beano and even turns to crime, an unnatural deviation from his traditional role, which extracts an audible gasp from the audience. I noticed a couple of obvious ‘Walterisms’ missing from the script, such as referring to his Mum as “my mother” in the show, rather than “Mummy” as he would in the comic.

There are moments where references are made to the age of the comic, such as declaring that Dennis the Menace has been bad for 60 years. Whilst we can’t deny this, it swoops over the heads of the children this piece is aimed at, who simply see him as a child

The final number in the production is a rap listing the names of every single Beano character from its 75 year history. Many children didn’t understand this, and only recognised a few names in a number that dragged on with no real substance or story to it. A simple list of names does not a song make.

The overall feel of the production is that The Trial of Dennis the Menace wants to be more intelligent than it is, and needs more work before it can become the tribute that Dennis and his chums truly deserve. A good number of children in the audience appeared to enjoy it more than me though, so perhaps this is a show to drop the kids off at while you relax in the bar next door.